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art by Ron Sanders

Life on Mars

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction with Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology, The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. The anthology she and Shay Darrach edited for Crossed Genres, Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, was called “The Future of Science Fiction.” She blogs at delagar and with Skepchick’s Grounded Parents.

I was on my way home from my night job when I heard they'd found life on Mars.
Algae, I thought, wearily. Fossil bacteria. My night job, my other job, not my full-time job, which was unloading trucks at a warehouse, this job was tutoring Exceptional Teens in Broken Arrow for five hour five days a week, from five to ten p.m.
Exceptional is what you get called if you're a thug and your parents own half the state.
It was a nice job, indoor work with climate control; still, I was worn out. My spine ached, and it was sleeting again. The crack in my boot sole had let the icy slush through. However, a nice kid on the bus gave up his seat to me. I rested my head against the window and watched the blurred lights of Tulsa jolt past, trying to stay awake. I'd slept past my stop more than once.
"Gateway brought in a linguistics team," the kid to his boyfriend, showing him his phone screen, which was one half playing a video clip and one half skyping someone, some other friend of theirs I guessed. "Translators."
"Translators?" I sounded ruder than I meant.
They all looked up at me, even the girl on Skype: identical faces, bright as new pennies. Though no one that young had ever seen a penny, I imagine. "Ma'am?" one said. A polite child.
"Translating what?" I said.
"The aliens!" He smiled with delight, shaking back the braids all the wild boys were wearing lately, long as chains and woven with multi-colored strings of silk. "We found aliens on Mars! It's so boss!"
"Impossible." I had done most of a Ph.D. in biochemistry, long ago now, and though I had not kept up as thoroughly as I would have had I gotten a position in the academy, I had kept up enough to know that. Not that kind of life, not the sort of alien life you would need to hire linguists to translate for.
His young friend turned his phone screen toward me. The vidclip was starting over: The Rover-12, familiar to all of us after its months on Mars, stood on a red sandy slope. All around it, in suits that shone blue and white against the pinkish Martian sky, stood the aliens.
"Crap," I said, mildly enough.
"Yeah, right?" The one holding the phone grinned at me. He had multi-colored teeth, capped red, green, yellow, the way they all did now. His boyfriend laughed and hugged him. On the phone's screen, the alien waved its arms. Two on each side. Two feet on each side, too. It should have looked like a spider, but it did not.
Their stop came, and they bounded off, still laughing and talking in shouts. I leaned on my window, gazing at the smear of lights through the sleet. We lived in subsidized housing, far outside the city. I had forgotten my umbrella, as usual. I walked the mile from the stop, wearily, and climbed six flights--no elevators for welfare rats. The key stuck in the door. Swearing, I fought it open, and then leaned on the jamb while I pried my boots off. I needed new boots. Which we would buy with what? I needed a better job. I needed a better life. Dumping the boots in the corner by the door, I limped through the dim kitchen toward the bedrooms. Tasha was still awake; the light shone under her door. I poked my head in to say good night. "Mums," she said. "Life on Mars!"
"I saw," I said. "Aliens."
"From somewhere else," she said. Sprawled on her belly on her bed, she was reading a science feed on her handheld, her long legs waving in the air. "They're not Mars natives."
"Did you get dinner?"
"Dadzo made rice and beans. They've got a spoken language. That means they're atmospheric probably. Isn't that boss?"
"Don't stay up all night?" I went back to the kitchen, which was really just our other room, a kitchen/living room. One of my co-parents had made dinner, probably Sam. Ethan had probably done clean up. I found leftover beans and rice in the fridge, and mixing a rum and ginger ale, drank most of it while it heated. Sam worked nights at Wal-Mart; he wouldn't be home until dawn. I thought about finding the other handheld and hunting news on the aliens. Instead I drank the rest of the rum and ginger, watching through the window the tiny bright chip that was Mars in the dark sky.
I'd wanted to be an astronaut once, when I was Tasha's age. When I still thought we would have space colonies. Space stations. Spaceships. Older, I had wanted to be a scientist. It had almost seemed possible then, something that could happen, that a kid could start from a trailer and reach the stars. If she was smart enough. Worked hard enough. Studied long enough.
Mars shone bright in the night sky.
I sighed and finished the rum. Behind me, the microwave beeped, reminding me that the beans were ready. I decided I wasn't hungry, and put them back in the refrigerator. Rinsing out my glass, I went past Tasha's room to the room Sam and Ethan and I shared, and undressed in the dark. Ethan, who worked the brickyards, was dead asleep, and barely woke as I slipped in with him.
"Katya?" he said sleepily.
"Mmm." I wrapped my arms around him, nuzzling the nape of his neck.
"Everything okay?"
"Yeah. They found life on Mars."
"Yeah." I bit at his ear. "Go to sleep."
He caught my hand and pulled me closer to him. "Love you, kitten."
I rested my head on his shoulder and waited for sleep to take me.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 14th, 2014

Author Comments

"Life on Mars" came from a few sources. One is W. H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," which famously begins, "About suffering they were never wrong / the old masters.. how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;" it came to me that it would be interesting to tell the story of first contact from that perspective. Another source for the story is my continuing frustration with the destruction of America’s infrastructure (educational, labor, and otherwise); another came from my work shoes, which are (in fact) split straight across the sole.

- Kelly Jennings
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